A new breed of High Country sailors | SummitDaily.com

A new breed of High Country sailors

A calm afternoon on Lake Dillon with students from the Dillon Junior Sailing summer camp.
Phil Lindeman / Special to the Daily |

Dillon Junior Sailing summer camps

What: A youth sailing camp for kids ages 10-18, with classes for beginner, intermediate and advanced sailors

Where: Dillon Marina in Dillon

Cost: $375 one week, $700 two weeks, $1000 three weeks

Camp session last five days (Monday through Friday) and are held weekly between now and Aug. 21. No prior sailing experience is required, and all equipment is provided. For more information or to register, see http://www.dillonjuniorsailing.com.

There’s a reason kids with the Dillon Junior Sailing program want to avoid turtling.

First things first: Turtling is a boating term for what happens when a beginner (or anyone else) gets caught off-guard by unpredictable gusts and then capsizes. But not only does the boat tip over — it turns completely upside down, pulling the sail under the water until the craft looks no different than a turtle stuck on its shell.

Near the end of a relatively calm July afternoon on Lake Dillon, that’s exactly what happened to a group of boys learning the basics with the program’s summer camp. A microburst came out of nowhere — a common occurrence at the home of the nation’s highest yacht club — and before the boys could adjust the sail to account for the rapidly changes wind, it started to teeter and eventually flipped.

“They’re turtling,” says Dillon Junior Sailing director James Welch, watching from behind the wheel of a small, motorized boat. “Can you help them out?”

Welch gets a nod from senior instructor Annie Hettinger before she zooms over to the turtling crew in an inflatable pontoon. The boys are yelling and shouting, but it’s far from frightened screaming. No, the lake is still a chilly 56 degrees, even in mid-July, and after just 20 seconds in the water they’re ready to get out.

And the boys have been here before. It’s day four of a five-day sailing camp, during which they’ve been learning the basics of boating: how to rig a sail, how to steer, how to manage weight, how to read the constantly changing winds.

The campers also learn what to do when the boat capsizes. They’ve improved day after day, Welch says, but sailing on Lake Dillon is an entirely different beast than navigating a calm coastal bay.

“It’s pretty complicated to learn this, and that’s why you can’t be too young to learn the techniques,” Welch says as he watches Hettinger help the boys grab a hold of the capsized hull. “If you don’t know what you’re doing you just end up flailing, like a goldfish caught in a current.”

The boys are having a tough time getting out of the drink — “It’s so cold!” one of them shivers — but Hettinger is patient, holding the boat steady with one foot on the hull as the other balances on the pontoon. Through it all, she explains again to the boys what she’s doing and why she’s doing it. This is a classroom, after all.

Slowly but surely, the boys start to maneuver the boat until it begins to tip upright and, finally, the sail emerges. The boys are drenched and ready for towels on the shore, but they passed the turtling test. And it wasn’t a drill.

“We want to get more sailors in the world, move them up the ranks so they can maybe move up to bigger boats in the future,” Welch says. “It gets kids outside, on the water. They aren’t stuck inside playing video games or whatever.

The Rocky Mountain club

Founded in 2005, the Dillon Junior Sailing club is a nonprofit linked to the Dillon Yacht Club. All funding comes from tuition and local grants, which help Welch buy new boats, mend docks and make other improvements to the club grounds, like a recently widened path leading from the Dillon Marina to the private dock.

“It’s tough being a nonprofit up here,” Welch says. “We don’t have a lot of funding, but we make do with what we get. In terms of the High Rockies, we’re the only sailing school around.”

The next closest sailing school, known as Community Sailing of Colorado, is based at Cherry Creek Reservoir. That club also hosts summer camps, but Welch believes that his young sailors are tougher than the rest, simply because they deal with the unpredictability of Lake Dillon.

“I like that we’re based in the mountains,” Welch says when we return to the club’s private dock and the kids begin mooring their boats. “It’s a little more intense than the Denver programs in terms of wind and water temps. There’s a little more risk to it, that’s for sure, but that’s why we do the training. It’s a little bit different up here.”

For skiers out there, a fitting metaphor is the bunny hill. It’s easy enough to learn pizza and French fries on a slope some 300 yards long. But once you move to the big, unpredictable realm of long greens and blues, your skills are put to the test.

Dillon Bay, the lake’s northernmost bay and home to the youth camps, is the blue run of sailing. It’s not so dangerous that children get frightened or injured, but Welch believes it teaches them the kind of instinctual skills all sailors need.

Camper to instructor

On the dock helping campers exit their crafts is Rudy Burki, a 12-year-old volunteer instructor who’s been involved with the summer camps since he was 8 years old. His 13th birthday is today, but the Dillon native has the chops of a veteran sailor.

“My dad taught me how to sail on a J/22 (sailboat), so I kind of knew how to do it before I showed up at camp,” Burki says. “Ever since I could remember I’ve been on a boat. It was really natural for me.”

About three years back, when Burki had aced the beginner, intermediate and advanced camps, Welch suggested he join the junior sailing race team. Every summer, the team travels to a handful of regattas across the state and region, sometimes traveling as far as Salt Lake City to take on other juniors.

“I like racing because there are so many different things you have to think about,” says Burki, whose first race was a small Friday night series on Lake Dillon. “You have to know the wind, how to read the wind, and you have to know how to use the right tactics.”

Thanks to the camp, Burki has sailed solo during the Dillon Regatta on Labor Day, navigating the winds and waves from the deck of an 11-foot Laser sailboat. This year, for the first time, he’ll join a crew of four to race the much larger J/80 boat. He’s looking forward to it — “This might be the only chance I get on a J/80,” he says — but he enjoys volunteering with Welch nearly as much as racing.

“We get to watch from a different perspective,” Burki says. “When you’re with the advanced kids, you can watch what they’re doing to go faster. You can learn by seeing them. With the beginners, it’s fun to see them grow as a sailor.”

On the shore, the turtling crew stowed their sail and finally stood on the warm, dry dock. Both boys had their arms wrapped around their sides, and as the wind subsided they quickly stopped shivering and started talking excitedly about their unexpected bath.

“It’s more than just learning how to sail,” Welch says as the kids trek back to the camp classroom near the marina. “It’s about developing friendships and just getting out on the lake. It’s a rare opportunity for kids up here to get on the water.”

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